OAH Distinguished Lecturer Profile

Rebecca L. Davis

Portrait of Rebecca L. Davis

Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware, with a joint appointment in the Department of Women and Gender Studies. She is the author of More Perfect Unions: The American Search for Marital Bliss (2010), a history of how marriage counseling shaped twentieth-century American religion, social science, and gender politics. She is completing Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics, and she is the co-editor of Heterosexual Histories (with Michele Mitchell), forthcoming early 2021 from New York University Press. Her current book project is Sex in America (Liveright). Davis serves as a producer and the story editor for the Sexing History podcast. A former postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Study of Religion at Princeton University, she was a visiting fellow there during the 2016–2017 academic year.

Featured Lecture

OAH Lectures

Since World War II, Americans have debated whether identity is something a person can choose or if it is assigned at birth. Looking at notable conversions, including those of Muhammad Ali (who famously said, "I'm free to be who I want to be") this talk explores how we have come to use the language of faith to authenticate narratives of self-transformation. In a world of "fake news" and with a "reality" TV star in the White House, this recent history of Americans' ideas about faith, politics, and sincerity is more important than ever.
When the Supreme Court announced its decision in the Obergefell decision in 2015, it seemed that the United States would put its debates over marriage equality behind it, moving all 50 states toward a legal definition of marriage that included same-sex couples. Yet almost immediately, the religious defenders of "traditional marriage" challenged the implementation of the decision, and the current administration has looked for ways to undermine it. Why has marriage become the focus of religious activism in the United States? This lecture explores the history of the American investment in marriage and offers suggestions about why marriage remains a rallying cry for the Christian right.
When Muhammad Ali announced that he had joined the Nation of Islam in 1964, his father told reporters that his son had been "brainwashed" by Elijah Muhammad. This idea--that the physically powerful boxer had a weak mind--persisted throughout his career, often cited to discredit his activism against the war in Vietnam and to mock his chosen religion. But it also resonates in today's debates over the presence of African Americans (especially Black men) in national conversations about faith, power, and authentic self-definition.
By 1946 Clare Boothe Luce was already serving her second term in Congress (R-CT) and was the author of several well regarded plays, most famously, The Women. Her husband, Henry Luce, stood atop an ever-growing publishing empire. Clare Luce surprised everyone, however, when she converted to Roman Catholicism in 1946 under the tutelage of Monsignor (later Bishop) Fulton Sheen. She seized the attention her conversion generated to promote Catholicism as the solution to global communism. This talk explores the ironies and unintended consequences of Luce's celebration of Catholic conversion in the late 1940s, arguing for her place among the most influential religious anti-Communists of the mid-20th century.
Sammy Davis Jr., the great entertainer, converted to Judaism in 1960 and was almost immediately ridiculed by American Jews and by African Americans for selling out, playing white, and pandering to his audience. Yet Davis insisted that he had found a spiritual home in Judaism. This talk looks at Davis's conversion as a provocative yet important moment in American history, when ideas of religion, race, and ethnicity collided in unpredictable ways.